June 28, 2006

Between The Covers

Jane Austen fans can be a fierce lot, at times so possessive of their early 19th century literary heroine that in their zeal to protect her against imitators and judgmental scholarly biographers, they often forswear, by their militant defense, the essence of Jane Austen's fictional world: irony.

Fine artists prevail, regardless of who does what to their work. Indeed, if imitation is a form of flattery, then parodies, take offs, sequels and prequels only testify to the appeal and significance of the original. Jane Austen's novels, so splendid in their wry and sly cultural criticism of Regency England, need no Valkyrie gatekeepers telling writers what they should and should not do. With sense and sensibility in mind, it should be said that only a petty academic or humorless idolater would confuse the liberties Amanda Elyot takes in her comedic romance By a Lady with the spirit and substance of the English Romantic period's best known and admired woman prose writer.

Elyot subtitles her clever, witty, researched-filled romp around Bath in 1801 "Being the adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen's England." Its protagonist is a 21st century actress called C.J. (Cassandra Jane, for Austen's sister and the author) Welles, who is about to star in a two-character play featuring Austen, and who is also, unbeknownst to her, about to be transported back to 1801. That By a Lady includes a cameo appearance by the famous author herself adds to the fun of seeing Elyot drawing on Austen's novels for names, dialogue, setting and theme.

It's unlikely that a more literate romance could be found to whet the appetite of readers today who rarely venture forth from pop historical novels or fluff fiction. Though they may be enticed by jacket copy proclaiming By a Lady is "a tale of time travel, true love, and Jane Austen" and by the book's cover showing a seductive, reclining period figure posed against an arched window that looks out on Times Square at night. Elyot's novel could easily provide an entertaining and instructive addition to any humanities curricula (a brief Questions for Discussion guide is included at the end). Another teaser, especially for East End readers, might be the fact that the story begins in present-day Bridgehampton.

Elyot, a frequent visitor to Sag Harbor, whose earlier ventures into historical romance include The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, draws on her life as a professional actress. By a Lady is dedicated to the memory of the famous writer, Howard Fast (d. 2003), whose two-character stage play The Novelist, about a fictional romance between Jane Austen and a dashing sea captain, Elyot starred in, in 1996. The book's two epigraphs, both from Austen, clearly show that Elyot appreciates her lady's complexity.

In the first quotation, Austen suggests she could never write a "serious romance" unless forced to do so to save her life, and then would do only so by laughing. The second quotation, from Sandition, the novel Austen was working on when she died in 1817, testifies to her predilection for novels that "display human nature with grandeur" and the "progress of strong passion." But she continues, expressing her regard for novels that show how "the strong spark of women's captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man as leads him . . . to hazard all, dare all, achieve all, to obtain her."

And so it is for Amanda Elyot's Owen Percival, Third Earl of Darlington, who succumbs to the delicious charms of C.J. when she mysteriously finds herself conveyed from a theatre in New York to one in Bath 200 years earlier. Of course, the earl also succumbs to the pressures of class, and therein lies Elyot's admirable reliance on Austen for the theme of love in conflict with the demands of money and marriage.

With ease, Elyot slips back and forth in time with period-appropriate colloquialisms and references, including for the earlier period a Yiddish-speaking London pawnbroker and, for the later, Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein. When Sir Percival allows that he wishes to pay his address to C.J.'s aunt, to ask for her hand, the transported (all senses) heroine muses, "Why not. Why the hell not?" This being a modern romance, erotica is also up to date. Making love to a surprised earl, C.J. whispers in his ear, "if you can get your tongue around Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, you can get it around anything." And he does. C'mon Janeites lighten up and smell the tea.

By a Lady by Amanda Elyot, Three Rivers Press, 363 pp., $14.95.

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